Here’s a fable about Japanese politics circa 2011.

A wily monkey

An ass

A goat

And a ham-fisted bear

Decided to form a quartet

They acquired a score, a bass

A viola and a couple of fiddles

Then plucked and sawed away

But all that came of this plucking and sawing was noise. So the wily monkey shrieked:

“Stop, boys, hold your horses!

How can we produce music

If we’re not sitting

In our proper places?’

There follows a round of musical chairs, with each player switching to a different seat. But again the result is raucous discord, until the ass sounds off:

“We can make music together

Only if we sit in a row!’

So, the wily monkey, the ass, the goat and the ham-fisted bear sit themselves in a row and fiddle away, but, as before, all that comes out is an unholy racket. The “musicians” start to quarrel and quibble about who should be sitting in what position.

With profound apologies to the great Russian fabulist Ivan Andreevich Krylov (1769-1844), I offer the above translation of his poem “Quartet” as a striking parable of Japanese politics. I leave to your imagination who is the wily monkey and who might be the ham- fisted bear — and take your pick as to who is the ass.

Now, every time a Cabinet is reshuffled in Japan, we are made privy to two iconic scenes.

In Scene One, the “new” Cabinet members are standing stiffly, decked out in formal attire that one has not seen in the West since the time of Benjamin Disraeli’s bar mitzvah. They are perched ceremoniously on a staircase like an unboxed set of black-and-white hina dolls.

Scene Two depicts them sitting down, but not like most other countries’ Cabinet members do, amiably (at least on the surface) around a table. A table is a symbol of shared purpose and reasoned negotiation. But no, Japanese politicians are sitting in separate armchairs, each facing forward, the men adopting the “pose of Japanese manliness,” with hands on the chair’s arms and legs planted firmly apart.

The solemnity of this scene may be broken by the occasional whisper, smile or, even, chuckle, to demonstrate that these members are, after all, in some kind of contact with each other.

Why is it that Japanese politics is so personally polemical? And the citizenry just sits in the bleachers as the shufflers shoot their weighted pucks down the shuffleboard, gloating as they knock the less weighty pucks of their “esteemed colleagues” to one side or the other, if not right off the court.

Back in the 1980s, I had dealings with a number of Japanese firms and would often go out at night to discuss business matters; for, as anyone who has worked in this country knows, it is in the nation’s bars and restaurants that careers are made or shattered.

What always struck me was the enormous amount of time my coworkers spent discussing other people, rather than policies, plans and decisions. It was as if I were a consultant to the management committee of an uranagaya, a row of backstreet houses. The only proper term to describe the nature of our discussions was “glorified gossip.”

And yet, it is just such glorified gossip that provides the adhesion to Japanese interpersonal relationships. The key to any successful execution of policy in Japan is consensus — but it’s the kind of consensus in which dissenters are obliged to bow their head and cooperate with the majority. Even a single claim against a decision, if pursued by anyone on the inside, spoils the consensus and cracks the adhesion. The heroes in Japan are those who disagreed but went along with the group anyway; the outcasts are those who do what is called hirakinaori (digging in of the heels) when everyone else is marching forward.

The recent Cabinet reshuffle by Prime Minister Naoto Kan makes perfect sense from the point of view of the logic of this special variety of Japanese consensus. Its primary purpose was the isolation of fellow Democratic Party of Japan member Ichiro Ozawa, who is mired in a scandal involving alleged financial irregularities.

Alas, the perceived “alien substance” that is Ozawa is too potent to be excluded from the party. All that is left for Kan to do is encapsulate and contain his power by reshuffling his Cabinet. The shift of Banri Kaieda, seen as an Ozawa supporter, to minister of economy, trade and industry from minister of state for economic and fiscal policy may be understood in this light.

In other words, while the leaders of Japan play shuffleboard on the deck of the ship of state — notice that I did not write the “Titanic”; it’s much too early for that — China and India and South Korea are moving ahead by leaps and bounds, and the United States is looking far over Japan’s shoulder toward continental Asia.

Why isn’t the media doing more to urge and compel Japanese politicians to focus on the many grave issues facing the nation from the inside and out? The reason is simple: The Japanese people prefer the spectacles of innuendo and double-cross; they are not sufficiently concerned to wade through the complex details of policy. And why are they not sufficiently concerned? Well, the media hardly encourages such concern at all.

In December 1975, I was staying at the home of the now deceased playwright and novelist Hisashi Inoue. One night, we were sitting around the table with some other writers and actors when the results of the Australian election flashed on the television screen, announcing that Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam had been defeated.

Suddenly I looked around the table.

“Roger, are you all right?” someone asked.

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “But one of my heroes has just lost an election.”

All the others exchanged glances and grinned.

“Hey, what’s up?” I asked.

“We’re just surprised that someone like you would care who won an election,” said one of the writers. “What’s the difference who wins?”

That’s it, I thought: It is the apathy of the people toward policy that allows the incompetent musicians to form an orchestra year after year, producing sounds that signify nothing. There has never been a lower note in Japanese postwar politics than the one so persistently being struck today.

Krylov’s fable, two centuries old, still speaks for Japan. A nightingale, attracted to the scene by the din, flies by, telling the wily monkey, the ass, the goat and the ham-fisted bear:

“To be a musician, you must have the aptitude

And an ear more attuned than yours

You, my friends, will never make the grade

No matter what seat you are sitting in.’

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.